Hillary Rodham Clinton
PAUL J. RICHARDS  /  AP
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, walks on the red carpet upon her arrival at PAF Base Chakala in Islamabad for meetings with leaders and officials on Sunday.
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updated 7/18/2010 6:52:51 PM ET 2010-07-18T22:52:51

Pakistan and Afghanistan sealed a landmark trade deal Sunday as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed the two neighbors to step up civilian cooperation and work together against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Shortly after kicking off a South Asia trip aimed at refining the goals of the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan, Clinton looked on as the Afghan and Pakistani commerce ministers signed the trade agreement. It was reached only after years of negotiation with recent and very active U.S. encouragement.

The pact, which eases restrictions on cross-border transportation, must be ratified by the Afghan parliament and Pakistani Cabinet. U.S. officials said they believe it will significantly enhance ties between the two countries, boost development and incomes on both sides of the border and contribute to the fight against extremists.

"Bringing Islamabad and Kabul together has been a goal of this administration from the beginning," said Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "This is a vivid demonstration of the two countries coming closer together."

Despite the agreement, Clinton faces challenges in appealing for greater cooperation between the neighboring nations on the nearly 9-year-old war, pressing Pakistan for more help in taking on militants accused of plotting attacks on the U.S., including the failed Times Square bombing, and stepping up action against extremists along the Afghan border.

Although Pakistan has relented on issuing long-delayed visas for some 450 U.S. officials and Clinton is bringing new U.S. development aid for Pakistan, anti-American sentiment remains high.

In addition, U.S. officials have also expressed concerns about Pakistan's plans for a deal with China that would give energy-starved Pakistan two new nuclear power plants. Critics said transferring the reactors would violate international nonproliferation agreements.

In talks with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, ahead of Monday meetings with military and civilian officials, Clinton was conveying the message that the U.S. is committed to the country's long-term development needs, not just short-term security gains.

Clinton is offering a package of about $500 million in development programs, funded by legislation approved by Congress to triple nonmilitary aid to $1.5 billion a year over five years. The aid will focus on water, energy, agriculture and health. The initiatives mark the second phase of projects begun under a new and enhanced strategic partnership.

Shift in Pakistani public?
Holbrooke noted that when Clinton visited Pakistan last October she had "waded into continually hostile and skeptical crowds." But he maintained that the new U.S. focus is "producing a change in Pakistani attitudes, first within the government and gradually, more slowly, within the public."

Still, he and other officials acknowledge, mistrust of America runs deep in Pakistan, particularly over unmanned drone strikes. They're aimed at militants but often kill or injury civilians; to many Pakistanis, they represent an unacceptable violation of sovereignty.

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Vali Nasr, a Holbrooke deputy, said overcoming the suspicion remains a work in progress.

"We're beginning to see movement, but this is not going to happen overnight," he told reporters aboard Clinton's plane. "We're not going to be able to get them aligned over a one-year time period on every single issue and change 30 years of foreign policy of Pakistan on a dime."

Underscoring Pakistan's fragility, only hours after Clinton's arrival a suicide bomber ran past guards at a minority Shiite mosque in eastern Pakistan then blew himself up, wounding several worshippers. The attack, hundreds of miles away from Islamabad, appeared to be the latest in a string by Sunni extremists against other Muslims they consider infidels.

After her stop in Pakistan, Clinton is set to attend an international conference on Afghanistan on Tuesday in Kabul, where Afghan officials will present details on their plans to reintegrate militants into society and outline how they intend to implement reform and anti-corruption pledges made earlier this year.

Security was tightened in the Afghan capital ahead the conference which will assemble diplomats from 60 nations as well as the heads of NATO and the United Nations.

Still on Sunday, a suicide bomber in the eastern section of Kabul killed three civilians and injured dozens more .

Clinton's visit to Afghanistan comes as American lawmakers and voters are increasingly questioning the course of the drawn-out war with rising death tolls among U.S. and international troops and growing questions about corruption.

Last month was the deadliest of the war for international forces: 103 coalition troops were killed, despite the infusion of tens of thousands of new U.S. troops. So far in July, 54 international troops have died, 39 of them American. An American service member was killed by a blast in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, and an American died in a blast in the south on Friday.

Later in the week, Clinton will meet up with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in South Korea, where tensions with the communist North have risen after the sinking of a South Korean warship that was blamed on the North.

She will finish her trip in Vietnam for discussions with regional leaders. Among the topics will be the upcoming elections in Myanmar.

'Fraying' support
U.S. lawmakers are increasingly questioning the course of the war in Afghanistan. The number of soldiers from the U.S. and other countries in the international coalition in Afghanistan is on the rise. Corruption is a deep problem in Afghanistan, and members of Congress wonder about the utility of massive aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The administration has said it will review its Afghan strategy at year's end. The slow progress against the Taliban and the disruptive effects of the firing of the outspoken American commander there last month, have led to a growing unease among many in Congress, including leading members of Obama's own party.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it is not clear that the administration has a solid strategy for prevailing. The committee's top Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, decried "a lack of clarity" about U.S. war goals.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said that while there remains "solid support" for the war among Democrats, "there's also the beginnings of fraying of that support."

In the House, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., has put a hold on nearly $4 billion in assistance to Afghanistan, asking that allegations of corruption be addressed and demanding that the Afghan government be held accountable.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Despite violence, Clinton cites progress in Pakistan

  1. Transcript of: Despite violence, Clinton cites progress in Pakistan

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: not immune, either. A suicide bomber struck a Shiite mosque in eastern Pakistan , injuring at least a dozen people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Pakistan tonight and our chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell is there with her reporting tonight from Islamabad .

    ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: ...Lester. Today's attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan underscore just how tough a challenge Hillary Clinton faces as she tries to get both countries to confront the Taliban and al-Qaeda . Under tight security, the secretary of state arrived in Islamabad , trying to overcome years of suspicion fueled by more violence. Today, a mosque in Punjab ; Saturday, a convoy ambushed northwest of the capital; last week the horrific bombing of a Shiite shrine in Lahore . Still, in an interview with NBC News , she cited some progress.

    I know how impatient I am and I know how impatient Americans are because obviously we do not want to see another attack coming out of Pakistan .

    Secretary of State HILLARY CLINTON: Most recently, the Times Square bomber was trained by the Pakistan Taliban . Clinton still believes elements in Pakistan 's government could get Osama bin Laden if they wanted to. Do you still believe that?

    MITCHELL: I do, I do. I think that there's a bit of a debate going on within certain elements of the Pakistani government . Our argument is very simple. Look, you've got to take on every non-governmental armed force inside your country because even though you think they won't bother you today, there's no guarantee. It's like keeping a poisonous snake in your backyard.

    Sec. CLINTON: And in a decades-old terror case, Clinton did not have good news for families of the Lockerbie bombing . The British government says there is no evidence BP influenced the decision to release Abdel Basset al-Megrahi , the convicted bomber. Does that end the case as far as you're concerned?

    MITCHELL: Well, I don't think it will end it in terms of the inquiries that Congress and the administration have made. It may be that there's nothing to be done about it, which is deeply frustrating.

    Sec. CLINTON: One bright note today, Clinton helped broker the first trade agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan in more than four decades. But US officials know that the overriding issue is security, and that means getting Pakistan to go after the insurgents based in this country who are killing US

    MITCHELL: Andrea Mitchell traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Pakistan today. The secretary has

    troops in Afghanistan. Lester:

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